Arriving in Australia cinemas on the back of winning Best Film and Best Director at the Lumiere Awards, along with Best Director nods at the Cesar Awards and at the Venice Film Festival, this latest effort from Jacques Audiard (A Prophet, Rust and Bone) is a much-anticipated release that obviously struck a chord with those anointed the power to make such decisions, although it is hard to understand why they might be so enamoured with it. For his first English-language production, Audiard has opted for a western set in 1850’s Oregon featuring a quartet of accomplished American actors as the four men at the centre of the narrative. The Sisters Brothers features Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly as the titular siblings, hit men for hire in pursuit of a gold prospector and his benefactor at the behest of a mysterious entity known as The Commodore. With such a strong cast, it is difficult to know why the film fails to resonate, although it could well be the fact that too much time is spent trying to show just how ‘whacky’ the brothers are, rather than fleshing out any of the characters with any depth.
Based on a novel by Patrick De Witt, The Sisters Brothers follows Eli (Reilly) and Charlie (Phoenix) Sisters in their bid to chase down Hermann Warm (Riz Ahmed), a man who has allegedly stolen from The Commodore but is actually on his way to California with a chemical formula that has the potential to take all of the guess work out of gold prospecting and, potentially, make whoever possesses it very rich. The Commodore wants the formula and has sent Eli and Charlie to retrieve it, while eliminating Warm in the process. John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a scout who, having tracked down Warm, intends handing him over to the Sisters’ until his conscience intervenes and he teams up with Warm for the journey west.
Neither of the two brothers seem to possess any sense of guilt about the numerous people they kill, but Eli, the older of the two, is tired of the constant grind in chasing down people who have supposedly crossed The Commodore in some way. Eli wants to settle down, but Charlie has no aspirations for anything beyond the life he is living, which includes getting drunk in every town they visit. Phoenix has played this type of dysfunctional, amoral character numerous times now and there is nothing about Charlie that brings anything new to the table. Reilly imbues Eli with a dim-witted sweetness that is in complete contrast to the nature of his work, the cold brutality of which is on display in the opening scene when they murder a household of people in a scene that plays out in almost total darkness.
Combining elements of body horror, absurdist humour and extreme violence, The Sisters Brothers is worlds apart from the social realism of Audiard’s previous works. Despite the high body count and incessant bickering, there is a sensitivity in the relationship between the brothers, but the screenplay – penned by Audiard and Thomas Bidegain – never delves deep enough into their history to bring some context to their relationship. Gyllenhaal is confined to a somewhat slight role, while the usually always excellent Ahmed seems somewhat ill-at-ease as Warm. There are very few other characters who live long enough to make any impression, with women confined to the typical western tropes of mother, madam or prostitute. Reilly and Phoenix demonstrate tremendous chemistry throughout and one gets the impression there was much fun to be had during filming. Their interplay is every bit as amusing as you might expect from these two and the vistas captured by cinematographer Benoît Debie (Spring Breakers, Climax) are quite stunning but, whilst working in the most American of genres may bring Audiard a much wider audience, fans of his earlier films may find The Sisters Brothers somewhat underwhelming.